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Possible Iraq war puts old leaders at front
WASHINGTON -- Colin Powell's question hung in the air of the Cabinet room, premature and bold.
With Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait only a half-day old, Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a soldier responsible for following political orders, asked President George Bush and aides if it was worth going to war to liberate Kuwait.
"Stick to military matters," then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney later scolded Powell. "You're not secretary of state."
Well, he is now.
In fact, both Powell and Vice President Cheney are among a number of top Bush administration officials for whom a new war with Iraq would be something of a replay, albeit one they would undertake with new, improved job titles and a few more wrinkles.
President Bush would have a starring Gulf War role for the first time. In 1991, he was running the Texas Rangers baseball team.
The chief nemesis -- Saddam Hussein -- is familiar, too. Powell, Cheney and others have spent the last decade defending the first Bush administration's decision to end the war without toppling him.
"Quite possibly, we would have wound up with a Saddam by another name," Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who would lead the next war as head of the military's Central Command, knows desert sand well.
He spent the 1991 Gulf War executing maneuvers as assistant commander of the First Cavalry Division. It marched into the heart of the Republican Guard fortifications in Iraq after a series of feints and probes along the border meant to confuse Saddam.
Others back for return tours of duty in a different Bush administration include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, an undersecretary in the last one, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a special emissary to Jordan's King Hussein last time and a longtime confidant of Powell.
Richard Myers, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia with the Tactical Air Command, which supplied fighters and other aircraft and support personnel for the war effort. As the command's deputy chief of staff for requirements, he worked to ensure Gulf forces had the most modern equipment possible.
The experience of the Bush team would serve it well in a possible war with Iraq, analysts say.
"If they fought that war, they would fight it intelligently," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst who nonetheless thinks the administration may be moving too quickly. "You have to respect their IQs and their seasoning."
The returning cast members represent the same philosophical divergence as they did in the first Bush administration.
Powell, then as now, is the moderate. In the leadup to the 1991 war, he was eager to see continued sanctions on Iraq considered as an alternative to war; this time he's pushed for another round of weapons inspections as a last resort.
The inspections are under way and represent a victory for Powell over more hawkish officials including Cheney, Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In his book, Powell recounted his run-in with Cheney and agreed with those who had called him a "reluctant warrior."
But once the decision for war was taken in 1991, Powell made the military's case to the public and the president with force and polish. He carefully wrote and rewrote his oft-quoted pledge for Saddam's army: "First we are going to cut if off, and then we are going to kill it."
He toted his leather map case into the White House time and again to apprise Bush of the war's progress, wielding acetate overlays and a laser pointer at an easel in the Oval Office.
In private, he recalled, he was not averse to profanity-laced "transoceanic shouting matches" with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Cheney, for his part, remains the cool, "resolute civilian" described by Powell in the last go-round.
Twelve years ago, it was Cheney who visited King Fahd's palace to sell Saudi Arabia on the sensitive matter of allowing U.S. forces to deploy on Saudi soil.
Approval in hand, Cheney quickly phoned Powell and directed: "Start issuing orders to move the force."
Powell recalls Cheney's insatiable appetite for information about the mechanics of war. "He spent hours in the National Military Command Center peppering my staff with questions. How do tanks work? Patriot missiles? How do you put together an air plan? What does armored infantry do on a battlefield?"
Eventually, Powell's staff organized a ceremony and presented Cheney with a certificate naming him an honorary graduate of all the war colleges. Maybe it went to his head.
Cheney later came up with his own plan for the ground war when he thought Schwarzkopf's first draft wasn't bold enough.
"The plan was as bad as it could possibly be," Schwarzkopf recalled, adding that Cheney's office offered multiple versions before finally dropping the idea.
The younger Bush and his family were at Camp David for Christmas 1990 as his father made final war preparations. The senior Bush wrote his five children a soul-searching New Year's Eve letter about the agonizing, imminent decision to send U.S. troops into combat.
Sometimes in life, he told them, "you have to act as you think best -- you can't compromise, you can't give in -- even if your critics are loud and numerous. So, dear kids -- batten down the hatches."
Other top members of Bush's current national security team were otherwise occupied in 1991.
Rumsfeld, who served his first tour as defense secretary under President Ford, was in corporate America then. Condoleezza Rice, now national security adviser, was a Soviet specialist for the administration.
Neither Myers nor Franks shows any inclination to assume the high-profile personas of their Gulf War counterparts, Powell and Schwarzkopf, who became media darlings. Franks, in fact, last year volunteered: "Tommy Franks is no Norman Schwarzkopf."
Likewise, don't expect Myers to deliver many punch lines like the one Powell, in 1991, scrawled on a 2,000-pound bomb that was bound for Iraq: "You didn't move it, so now you lose it."